(This isn’t just a post with a song’s lyrics in it, I promise.)
I was standing at the counter
I was waiting for the change
When I heard that old familiar music start
It was like a lighted match had been tossed into my soul
It was like a dam had broken in my heart
After taking every detour
Gettin' lost and losin' track
So that even if I wanted I could not find my way back
After driving out the memory
Of the way things might have been
After I'd forgotten all about us
The song remembers when
Yeah, and even if the whole world has forgotten
The song remembers when
-Hugh Prestwood, “The Song Remembers When”
I started a new job in the past couple of weeks, and I now get to drive for a good half an hour on the freeway, against traffic, in the pre-dawn darkness. I’ve broken out my very heavy, very full CD case in order to reacquaint myself with some old, dear friends—namely my music collection. So for the past few days, I have been floating along blissfully in a cloud of happy little music notes (or at least that's how it would look if I were a cartoon).
My tastes are varied, but the thing that the most valued “pieces” of my collection have in common, is the poetry of the lyrics. I am a fan of Sarah McLachlan (her less popular stuff, where she waxes more poetic); Tori Amos, Jann Arden, Indigo Girls. Something about the words transcends even the musical beauty of the songs and stays with me.
But, even the non-poetical (I know that’s not a word) songs—Billy Joel’s “Only the Good Die Young” can do it too—it comes on and BOOM, I’m 17 and riding shotgun up Provo Canyon with my best friend in a borrowed car. I can smell the fall air as it stings my cheeks through the open window, and more importantly, I feel the excitement, the freedom of being independent and of living in a moment.
I have a writing project that I started in college, and pick up from time to time, wherein I write about songs and the memories that come with hearing them. Relationships, feelings, thoughts, phases of my life, friendships—a song is almost like an encapsulated journal entry for me. You know that saying, “A picture is worth a thousand words”? Well, for me, a song can be a million words, a whole novel, a “year in the life of” memory. The music contributes, but it’s the way the poetry of the lyrics touches me that burns that information into my memory chips. If I ever want to remember not just the details, but the feelings of a memory, I just need to find the right song. The intensity of the memory, the viscerality of the emotion, can be downright frightening—like the first time you’re given a really great painkiller in the hospital and you realize you could get addicted to that feeling reeeeally easily.
So what is it about the combination of words and music that affects our recall of memory? I’ve been reading around and found an interesting study done by a professor at University of California Davis. Petr Janata conducted this study where students (test subjects) were given music to listen to while having their brains mapped by fMRI. What was found was that the same area of the brain that responds to music, and particularly music that is familiar to the listener, is the area that responds to salient memories—memories that stand out. It is like it is a hub and allows the brain to link the music and recall the memories. It’s a remarkable idea and has inspired music-based therapy for Alzheimer’s sufferers to improve their quality of life.
This fMRI brain scan shows areas that respond to familiar music (green), salient memories (red), and music that is perceived as enjoyable (blue). The yellow area, in the medial prefrontal cortex, is a response both to music familiarity and salient memory. (Petr Janata/UC Davis image)
As I am wont to do, I’ve been trying to make use of this idea in my writing. Obviously I can’t just include an MP3 player in my manuscripts so that everyone can have a soundtrack to influence their emotion and memory of my words. Not only would that be uneconomical, but the music has to be YOUR music, and YOUR memories, for this whole thing to work.
No, how I am using it is by analyzing the emotions that I am reliving when I listen, and trying to put them into words. Love, pain, loss, heartache, bliss—these are emotions that are so hard to pin down. By immersing myself in the experience, or at least the intensity of the emotional memory, I can stay in that moment long enough to try and reproduce it on the page. It’s the difference between having a snowflake in your hand and trying to describe the pattern to someone, and having a high-resolution picture you can refer to again and again.
I know I’m not the only one to do it—that’s why writers have their playlists and bands get notes on Acknowledgement pages. That’s not necessarily what I’m talking about here.
My new half-baked project idea is that I am just randomly, willy-nilly, selecting a song that I know “does something” for me—brings up some salient memory—and sitting and listening over and over again, letting the moment wash over me, while I write THAT memory, THAT emotion—and trying to distill those things down into words. Not for any particular story or reason, but just to have, to use when and if I need that emotion. It’s in embryo, and I’m not in a place to share it, but that’s my idea.
And if anyone starts seeing MP3 players being sent out with every book, just remember, I said it first!J